The wait is over for the University of St. Thomas men’s soccer team.
Following last year’s 2-1 loss to eventual national champion Tufts in the NCAA Division III tournament semifinals, the Tommies have been itching to get back to the postseason. This year’s playoff push begins Wednesday with an 11:30 a.m. Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) tournament semifinal at St. Thomas.
“We’ve been kind of waiting for postseason soccer since the day we got eliminated last December,” said Tommies coach Jon Lowery. “We haven’t taken a moment for granted. I know how excited the guys are to be back in the postseason, I know how excited they are to defend the MIAC playoff championship.”
St. Thomas completed a 10-0 title run through the MIAC last Saturday with a 1-0 victory at Bethel. At 17-1 overall with a 14-game win streak, the Tommies are on the verge of a historic double-double — consecutive years with outright regular-season titles followed by conference tournament wins. Gustavus won back-to-back playoff championships in 2006 and 2007 after sharing regular-season titles with St. John’s and Carleton, respectively.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a group of guys that really has shifted our culture into something that’s full of belief, full of commitment,” Jon Lowery, St. Thomas coach.
The top-seeded Tommies are scheduled meet the lowest remaining seed from Tuesday’s 2 p.m. first-round matchups pitting No. 6 Carleton (4-5-1, 10-7-1) at No. 3 Macalester (7-3, 10-5-2) and No. 5 St. John’s (4-4-2, 7-7-2) at No. 4 Hamline (6-3-1 ,11-5-1). Gustavus earned the No. 2 seed and the MIAC’s other first-round bye last Saturday with a 2-0 victory over Macalester, which entered the final week of the regular season ranked No. 18 nationally in Division III by the United Soccer Coaches. The Gusties entertain the highest remaining seed in the other semifinal at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
The MIAC final is scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at the highest seed. The winner earns the MIAC’s automatic bid to nationals.
Ranked No. 5 nationally to close the regular season, the Tommies are the only team that could survive a MIAC playoff loss and still earn an NCAA berth. But a group that features eight seniors and two juniors in its regular starting lineup isn’t likely to take anything for granted.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a group of guys that really has shifted our culture into something that’s full of belief, full of commitment,” said Lowery. “They want to change St. Thomas soccer. They want to become something that’s never existed here before.”
Leading that effort is senior midfielder Shae Bottum, “one of the best college soccer players around, at any level,” said Lowery. Bottum’s 25 points on seven goals and 11 assists placed him second on the team between twin brothers Justin (13-2–28) and Tyler Oliver (4-9–17). Justin’s winning goal against Bethel was his sixth with assistance from Tyler; the combination worked in the opposite direction on one other occasion.
The leading scorer for Gustavus, junior forward Arthur Parens (12-3–27), broke his fibula in last Tuesday’s 1-0 overtime win at Hamline and is out for the season. Senior forward Alex Wilson filled in immediately, scoring game-winners against the Pipers and Macalester to double his previous goal total.
“He’s stepped forward very well,” said Gustavus coach Mike Middleton of Wilson. “He’s been in the program all four years, but he hasn’t started until this year. He’s worked his socks off to make himself into a good college-level player.”
Freshman midfielder Matt Gibbons proved he belonged immediately and finished with a team-high seven assists. Senior utility man Matt Murakami’s offensive numbers (4-3–11) likely would have been higher if not for a midseason move to center back that solidified the Gustavus defense, leading the Gusties to eight wins in their final nine games.
“He’s good on the ball, he makes very good choices, he’s got a lot of game sense,” said Middleton of Murakami. “That allows us to build from the back a little more effectively, which is nice. It gives us a little more control of the game. If you want to control the game, you try to control the ball.”
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